It is difficult to see this poem in the Christmases that most of us are subjected to. I think that’s why C.S. Lewis became a bit of a Christmas curmudgeon in his latter days. But in the midst of his Narnian period, Lewis penned a poem that I think is one of his most important short pieces. It is here, in “The Turn of the Tide,” where we see how Lewis puts the incarnation of Christ–that great, eucatastrophic movement of incarnation, death, and resurrection–is not just a key moment in the history of salvation, and certainly not a model for crèche or card. The birth of Christ is the hingepoint of history, where all cosmic realities turn toward hope.
Lewis captures this in a poem filled with evocative imagery. Jerry Root and Mark Neal describe the turning point well it well:
When the hush has stilled both earth and heaven with a paralyzing fear of death and annihilation, there returns with a rush a sense of life and equilibrium, a lightening of spirits (The Surprising Imagination of C.S. Lewis, 184).
It is a Perelandran moment of myth and history becoming one and changing every destiny in the universe. Whatever we have reduced Christmas to in our culture, whatever they say on TV, this poem shows the ages of depth behind the Bethlehem moment.
Breathless was the air over Bethlehem; black and bare
The fields; hard as granite were the clods;
Hedges stiff with ice; the sedge, in the vice
Of the ponds, like little iron rods.
The deathly stillness spread from Bethlehem; it was shed
Wider each moment on the land;
Through rampart and wall into camp and into hall
Stole the hush. All tongues were at a stand.
Travellers at their beer in taverns turned to hear
The landlord—that oracle was dumb;
At the Procurator’s feast a jocular freedman ceased
His story, and gaped; all were glum.
Then the silence flowed forth to the islands and the north
And it smoothed the unquiet river-bars,
And leveled out the waves from their revelling, and paved
The sea with the cold, reflected stars.
Where the Cæsar sat and signed at ease on Palatine,
Without anger, the signatures of death,
There stole into his room and on his soul a gloom,
Till he paused in his work and held his breath.
Then to Carthage and the Gauls, to Parthia and the Falls
Of Nile, to Mount Amara it crept;
The romp and rage of beasts in swamp and forest ceased,
The jungle grew still as if it slept.
So it ran about the girth of the planet. From the Earth
The signal, the warning, went out,
Away beyond the air; her neighbours were aware
Of change, they were troubled with doubt.
Salamanders in the Sun who brandish as they run
Tails like the Americas in size,
Were stunned by it and dazed; wondering, they gazed
Up at Earth, misgiving in their eyes.
In Houses and Signs the Ousiarchs divine
Grew pale and questioned what it meant;
Great Galactic lords stood back to back with swords
Half-drawn, awaiting the event,
And a whisper among them passed, “Is this perhaps the last
Of our story and the glories of our crown?—
The entropy worked out?—the central redoubt
Abandoned?—The world-spring running down?”
Then they could speak no more. Weakness overbore
Even them; they were as flies in a web,
In lethargy stone-dumb. The death had almost come,
And the tide lay motionless at ebb.
Like a stab at that moment over Crab and Bowman,
Over Maiden and Lion, came the shock
Of returning life, the start, and burning pang at heart,
Setting galaxies to tingle and rock.
The Lords dared to breathe, swords went into sheathes
A rustling, a relaxing began;
With rumour and noise of the resuming of joys
Along the nerves of the universe it ran.
Then, pulsing into space with delicate dulcet pace,
Came a music infinitely small,
But clear; and it swelled and drew nearer, till it held
All worlds with the sharpness of its call,
And now divinely deep, ever louder, with a leap
And quiver of inebriating sound,
The vibrant dithyramb shook Libra and the Ram,
The brains of Aquarius spun round—
Such a note as neither Throne nor Potentate had known
Since the Word created the abyss.
But this time it was changed in a mystery, estranged,
A paradox, an ambiguous bliss.
Heaven danced to it and burned; such answer was returned
To the hush, the Favete, the fear
That Earth had sent out. Revel, mirth and shout
Descended to her, sphere below sphere,
Till Saturn laughed and lost his latter age’s frost
And his beard, Niagara-like, unfroze;
The monsters in the Sun rejoiced; the Inconstant One,
The unwedded Moon, forgot her woes;
A shiver of re-birth and deliverance round the Earth
Went gliding; her bonds were released;
Into broken light the breeze once more awoke the seas,
In the forest it wakened every beast;
Capripods fell to dance from Taproban to France,
Leprechauns from Down to Labrador;
In his green Asian dell the Phoenix from his shell
Burst forth and was the Phoenix once more.
So Death lay in arrest. But at Bethlehem the bless’d
Nothing greater could be heard
Than sighing wind in the thorn, the cry of One new-born,
And cattle in stable as they stirred.
Thanks, Brenton, for this timely reminder. It is indeed a fine poem. It took you a lot of keystrokes to reblog it for us, and I hope many of your subscribers will give it the careful attention it deserves. Beyond that, I look forward to Lewis’s poetry receiving the appreciation it deserves — for its crafsmanship, thoughtfulness, and wisdom, and in this case, its groundedness in the poetic tradition binding together 17th and 20th centuries. See my article “C. S. Lewis, T. S. Eliot, and the Milton Legacy: The Nativity Ode Revisited,” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 44 (2002): 324-48. (Thanks, finally, for offering me this bulletin board, splendidly adorned with the Lotto painting, for a bit of shameless self-promotion.)
A merry Chritmastide to all — its peace, its joy, and its blessed hope.
Catching up on Childermas (a name including a Lewisian resonance: the epigraph to the first Abolition of Man lecture)…
A lot of us know this – or first had the opportunity to – thanks to Walter Hooper’s edition of Lewis’s Poems – but your photo of Don King’s cover reminded me that, though Arend Smilde and Norbert Feinedegen’s edition of The ‘Great War’ texts had struck me as perhaps the most substantial Hooper-complementary edition so far, it occurred to me after commenting on that recently, that it was Don’s King’s edition which probably had that distinction!
Charles Huttar is certainly right as to the careful attention this poem deserves… Milton’s Nativity Ode came to mind with my memory of the attention to the silencing of oracles, there, before I got to his comment.
The “little iron rods” got me wondering if Lewis was playing seriously with the Psalm of the Introit of the Christmas midnight Mass – and Handel’s Messiah – Psalm 2? And if the “stillness” expressed in the next line, played with the Introit of the Sunday in the Octave of Christmas, which I sang in the schola yesterday, beginning “Dum medium silentium tenerunt omnia” (The Book of the Wisdom of Solomon 18:14-15)?
The play with the style of the late Arthurian poetry of Charles Williams had struck me before (but not, I think with ‘The Calling of Arthur’, probably, in particular – with an illumination of the imagery of that poem, as well) – this time, I got wondering if there might also be a conscious play with the imagery of Archibald MacLeish’s ‘You, Andrew Marvell’ (which was included in Poems 1924-1933). An interesting aside with respect to the play with Williams’s use of internal rime, is that I think we can hear how Lewis pronounced “Ousiarchs” – with the ‘ Ous-‘ riming which the ‘Hous-‘ of “Houses”.
Is the “Favete” (imperative plural of ‘ favere’, in technical religious usage: ‘ Be silent!’) a particular quotation?
More generally, I wonder if Lewis knew – and here plays – with Tolkien’s poem, ‘Noel’ (and its play – as far as I can see – with the Exeter Book poetry traditionally entitle ‘ Crist’ and attributed to Cynewulf)?
In any case, what a (probably surprising) treat for the reader of Punch on 1 November (All Saints) 1948!
Wishing all a joyful Christmastide!
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